The correspondence of Manhattan’s Maestro.
Jan 13, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 17 • By JOHN SIMON
Upon receiving an honorary degree, together with Copland, from the University of Michigan, Bernstein writes a sonnet. From Vienna he writes, “I am enjoying Vienna enormously—as much as a Jew can.” To his mother he adds, “Every morning I eat Vienna rolls—what you always used to call Vianna rolls. Remember?” He sends his parents Demel chocolate, “the best on earth,” and signs, “Your Wiener Schnitzel.”
From New Zealand, he sends one of his liveliest, most evocative letters to Felicia, full of well-observed and vividly recounted details. “And so much love to you, my angel,” it concludes. To the mortally ill conductor Karl Böhm, he writes a touchingly warm letter, complete with some incorrect German: “You taught me, in wisdom, what I had been performing by intuition.” The great conductor Victor de Sabata writes him: “To know that a Bernstein does exist helps a lot.”
Sadly, Bernstein broke his promise to Felicia of dignified discretion; shortly before his wife’s death in 1978, he moved into an apartment with a young man. She cursed him: “You’re going to die a bitter and lonely old man.” To his last days, that malediction haunted him. In a late letter to his business manager, he tells him that he likes his “paradoxical duality” about occult matters, something he likes most “in any thinking-feeling person—including myself, in those ever-decreasing moments when I like myself.” The last letters are very moving, notably one from Mother Jennie to her son, wishing him “happy composing” and a “Happy (Jewish) New Year.” She outlived him by two years.
Finally, we get a letter from an illustrious colleague, Georg Solti: “It is wonderful that you will continue to write and teach.” A few days later, on October 14, 1990, Bernstein died at 72. His manifold legacy, including these letters, lives on.
John Simon is an author and critic living in New York.